"Last night I danced with the gypsies," my grandmother, Tilda, sang in her wobbly voice after I let myself into her apartment at the assisted living facility on my way home from work. The place was shadow heavy in the twilight. I turned on the floor lamp. Tilda was sitting in the 1950s flowered armchair — a keepsake from Jay Street — an empty dinner plate on the TV tray in front of her as it always was at this time of the day, six in the evening.
"Is that so?" I said as I leaned in for a kiss before I lifted the plate, carried it into her bluebird dressed kitchenette and set it in the sink. I'd been listening to Tilda's gypsy stories since I was a child.
I returned to the living room, switched on another lamp then slid the empty tray away from her chair and put it aside. It was then I noticed the silk scarf I'd never seen before, deep purple and gold, draped over her bony shoulders. Before I could ask, she said, "It's a gift from the gypsies." An appreciative smile came easy to her soft, round face as her fingers played with the silk.
So this was more than her usual storytelling, more than the forgetfulness and daily mix-ups that had been the reason for her move from the one-story on Jay Street to this facility where there was always someone to look in on her. I'd felt bad that I wasn't able to have my grandmother come to my place when she was no longer able to stay in her own home. After all, she'd welcomed me with open arms when I'd needed it. But I was at the office during the day. And up until six months ago, I still believed Ben might return home, and if he did, we'd need plenty of privacy to put us back together again.
I took a seat on the small corduroy sofa we'd picked out together when she'd moved in and tried to guide her back to reality. "Tilda, there are no gypsies here."
"There are," she countered. "They danced outside my window last night." At that, she pointed to the large front window covered with lacy, ivory sheers. "And I joined them."
"You're four floors up, with no balcony," I reminded her as I studied the scarf, deciding I had somehow overlooked it when we'd packed and unpacked her things for the move.
"Amy, you know I've met them before. I've told you that."
"I know," I said. Tilda had been a teenager the summer the gypsies arrived in town, setting up camp along the railroad tracks in her small neighborhood outside of Pittsburgh.
"My parents didn't allow it, but I spent all my free time at the gypsy camp." She laughed at the memory. "At fourteen, I was restless, hungry for adventure, anxious to explore the unknown, and the gypsies captured my interest. They were private people, but I visited so often that after a while, they gave up trying to discourage me from coming by. I felt like I was part of something mysterious and forbidden when I was with them. I loved it. And when neighbors passed by the camp, clicking their tongues and shaking their heads, I stood ground with the dark-eyed boys and girls as if I too were responsible for ripples in the familiar."
My grandmother rubbed the smooth silk of the scarf across her cheek. "When they packed up camp at the end of summer, I believe I was the only one that hated to see them go. I'd gotten attached to their stories and music, to dancing their dances as if I too were a wanderer. If I hadn't been so young, I would have followed them." She sighed with regret as if she'd missed her calling.
I stood, went over to where she sat in the worn chair and gave my grandmother a hug. I was about to step away, anxious to tackle any chores that awaited my attention, when Tilda came up out of her chair, arms extended like the delicate wings of a bird on the verge of extinction. The gypsy scarf was stretched behind her, fingertip to fingertip, as if she'd sprouted purple and gold feathers. To my surprise, she started to dance, spun once, a complete circle. I readied myself expecting her to fall, but she continued to spin, a beautiful whirling dervish moving into another dimension, becoming that spirited girl of long ago. Then, just as suddenly as she'd started, Tilda was done spinning and sank back into the folds of the armchair, looking small, but ecstatic, a woman who knew nothing of old age and loss.
"Amy," she said, straightening the scarf over her shoulders, her breath coming hard. "When was the last time you danced?"
"Don't recall," I admitted as I knelt in front of her counting each breath, waiting for her lungs to fill and relax.
"You must dance, Child. It's delicious."
I nodded and thought of Ben, my now ex-husband. "It gets my back up to hear her call you Child," he used to say, "Like you're not a grown-up with grown-up responsibilities." Ben was big on responsibilities. Mine, not his. But I always loved Tilda for calling me Child, especially these days, creating the illusion if only briefly, that middle-age hadn't snagged me, that I might still have a chance at adventure.
I was ten years old when my parents were killed in a boating accident on the Monongahela. For months afterwards, I dreamed I was crawling along the bank of the river looking for them. When I finally found them floating below the surface, I dipped my arms into the gray-green deep of nevermore, reached my hands towards them, calling, "I'm here. I'm here." But each time, my mother and father would only gaze at me with wide, blurry eyes and distorted smiles as they journeyed further away. They wouldn't reach for my hands. They wouldn't try to save themselves. And then they were gone, and I was left alone with the river, waiting. Afterwards, I'd wake crying and my grandmother would hurry to be with me. "It's okay, Child," she'd whisper as she held me. "Cry. Scream if you need to." Sometimes that's what I would do and Tilda joined me. On those nights, our grief filled the yellow-brick house on Jay Street.
"The gypsies are coming again tonight," my grandmother said, staring at the window.
I scooped her frail hand in mine afraid she was ready to follow them. "Caitlin will be home next week," I said, hoping the news of my daughter's upcoming visit would bring her back to me, but she didn't acknowledge the event that only the day before would have put a sparkle in her eyes. Instead, her gaze was fixed, her mind elsewhere.
I let go of her hand and headed to the bluebird kitchenette, carrying a touch of melancholy. I washed and dried the few dishes that waited in the sink then placed them in the center of the two-seater table where Tilda preferred to keep the dinnerware these days.
Before returning to the living room, I surveyed the bedroom and bath for anything that was out of place that might cause her to trip in the night. "I have to go," I said, as I leaned down and kissed the top of her gray head. "I'll stop by again tomorrow after work." When she didn't offer her usual nod, I wondered if my grandmother realized I'd be lost without her. "I'll bring éclairs from Dobson's Bakery," I promised. "You like those," I added, but she wasn't with me.
At home, I put the last square of lasagna from the tray I'd made over the weekend for Tilda and me in the microwave and while it was being zapped, I headed to the bedroom to change, slipping out of my navy skirt and white blouse and into a pair of flannel pajama bottoms and an oversized T-shirt that Ben had given me one Valentine's Day with the words Love Ewe Forever embroidered inside the image of a happy pink sheep as if a promise was being made.
I returned to the kitchen and was pouring a glass of chilled red wine to go with the dried-out noodles when Caitlin phoned.
"Tilda danced with the gypsies last night," I said after she asked about her great-grandmother. "And I'm worried."
"What's that?" Caitlin said above a bevy of youthful voices erupting behind her. She had a knack for making people feel welcomed. Her dorm room was often the gathering spot for friends.
"Gypsies," I said, raising my voice.
"Mom, are you losing it?"
"I don't think so, but who knows?" I pushed aside one of the yellow-gingham curtain panels on the window by the table, stared into the dark, searching for a band of bewitching gypsies with the power to seduce those who were ready to follow.
"Have you talked to dad lately?" Caitlin asked.
"I have," I said, letting the curtain fall back into place.
Ben had called three nights ago asking for permission to stop by to drop off a few things for Caitlin. He was going to be away when she came home. "Amy," he said, standing in the living room with a goodie bag for our daughter tucked under one arm, his voice dipping to a tremulous whisper, the tone he used when he believed he had something shocking to tell me. "Brianna and I are going to be married. I wanted you to know before we told Caitlin." He shifted from one foot to the other, staring down at the plush green carpet we'd had installed not two weeks before he moved out, waiting for a response, but I had nothing to say. "Good," he said after a brief period of silence, raising his eyes to meet mine, sliding his fingers over the stubble on his chin — part of the reckless look he'd adopted along with a black leather jacket and shaggy hair when he took up with Brianna — before raising his voice to its usual orotund pitch.
"Will you go to dad and Brianna's wedding?" Caitlin asked. "He said you'd be invited."
I stabbed the parched lasagna a few times with my fork. "How nice of them to include me."
"Great." She accepted my words as sincere, as an affirmative RSVP. She was so like Tilda, trusting, kind-hearted, spirited.
When Ben and I had told her we were divorcing, she hadn't been so much shocked as worried that no one's feelings got hurt. "You'll be civilized, friendly, won't you?" she said. And since neither of us could think of any reason to deny her that, we agreed and did our best to keep to it.
While Caitlin rambled on about what she knew of the upcoming wedding plans, I listened for the rush of fresh energy pushing in around windows and doors. But the house was drowsy as it always was these days. There was no happy couple plodding around, anxious to rekindle their romance after their daughter, their only child, had gone off to college. There was no newly single woman busting at the seams to get on with life. The only sounds to be heard were the raspy inhalations and exhalations of a sad old house.
"Caitlin." A male voice called out above the others in my daughter's room. It was Joshua, her boyfriend. "Mom, I have to go," she said.
I said good-bye, finished the lasagna and a second glass of wine that left a hint of black cherries behind then went in search of a silk scarf I'd bought a few years back and had tucked away in a dresser drawer in the bedroom. I found the black and white animal print buried under a heap of winter wool socks, fished it out, draped it over my shoulders then reached for a drumming CD a friend from work had given to me after Ben had taken off.
I'd confided to her that with Ben and Caitlin gone, the house had grown and I had shrunk, that once again, I was left alone, waiting.
One morning not long after our conversation she stopped by my desk. "For you," she said, handing me the CD. "The beat of the drums, like the thump-thump of a heart, will fill you up, take you to unknown places."
The house needed a heart and I was ready to go to places unknown, so I slid the CD into the player, turning the music loud until the whole place pulsed with a hypnotic beat. I stood in front of the oval full-length floor mirror that had been my mother's and thought about how I'd inherited her gray eyes and my father's square jaw, but not their fearlessness. I thought about how I was now older than either of them had ever got to be, about how I'd never been one to take risks.
The drums called and I answered. I spun once, full circle, like Tilda had done, felt silly, stopped, started again. You must dance, Child. It's delicious. I stretched my arms, holding the ends of the scarf with my fingers, letting it ride the air behind my shoulders as I spun again and again. Right palm up, left palm down. I was spinning with intent, filled with longing. My heart picked up the rhythm of the drums, a beat that was both ancient and new. I went faster, shedding everything that wasn't real until there was nothing left to surrender. It was delicious. It was ecstasy.
is a writer living near the meeting place of rivers, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. She holds an MFA, teaches at a local university, and facilitates quantum writing workshops with a focus on women and story.